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The Four Pillars of East Asian Medicine


Within the provenance of Traditional East Asian Medicine, there are four avenues of approach or "The Four Pillars" used for treating patients. There is a rich history of this medicine spanning a few millennia, as one of the oldest, if not the oldest recorded and practiced medicines in the world. This is a brief synopsis of how a practitioner utilizes these approaches which include, Acupuncture/Moxibustion, Herbs/Diet/Exercise, Physical Manipulation, and QiGong.


1. Acupuncture and Moxibustion

Acupuncture is the insertion of thin needles at specific points on the body along a series of lines called meridians. Meridians are energetic pathways that denote relationships between the different body systems. These lines are interconnected, forming a sort of highway system for the proper functioning of the body and the mind. If there is a block in any of these meridians or pathways, you may have pain, disease, or some other condition that arises. There are roughly 365 points on these meridians throughout the body, and by stimulating and manipulating the needles at these points, an acupuncturist can engage the body’s natural healing processes. Including needles, there are traditionally nine different tools that acupuncturists use to help patients with the conditions they are seeking treatment for.


Moxibustion is the burning of the herb artemisia vulgaris or mugwort or Ai Ye in Chinese. Known as moxa, this is an extremely unique and versatile herb that has been used longer than acupuncture. Moxa can be burned directly on the skin at specific points or areas and be removed as soon as there is a warming sensation without it doing harm to the skin. Additionally, moxibustion can be on top of a needle or above a specific acupuncture point to aid in the healing process for the appropriate conditions. What is unique about this process is moxa’s ability to penetrate deep into the specified area or acupoint. For example, moxa can be used if one has "weakness and cold of the spleen and stomach", leading to digestive issues. According to Traditional East Asian Medicine, this manifests as gas, bloating, fatigue, loose stool, lack of appetite, and distention of the abdomen after eating. Moxa may be burned to invigorate the meridians, eliminating the cold in the spleen and stomach and resolving and improving digestion and fatigue.


2. Herbs, Diet, & Exercise

Herbs are medicinals that are used as a stand alone way of treating conditions or in conjunction with Acupuncture. These herbs are formulated much like a western pharmacist fills prescriptions. Herbalists will assess and diagnose the patient and based on their findings will formulate the combination of different herbs may be taken in tea form using raw or granulated (powder) herbs or in pill or capsule form. Additionally, there are topical herbal formulas in the forms of liniments, creams, salves, and patches. A great example of an herbal formula or liniment in this case, would be something a lot of you may already be familiar with: Evil Bone Water or "Zheng Xie Gu Shui". This is a topical used for everyday muscle aches, injury, bruising, and joint pain at the site of necessity. The herbs within the formula help to reduce pain, inflammation, increase circulation and aid in the body’s natural healing processes.


Diet in Traditional East Asian Medicine (TEAM) is the use of functional foods that correspond with the practitioner's diagnosis and also aids in the health and healing of the body. From ancient times up until more modern times, food was considered a form of medicine. Today, we eat certain foods just because we enjoy them and they taste delicious, but it wasn't always that way. Food used to be specifically for the healthy functioning of the mind and the body; eating the proper foods was determined by corresponding changes to the seasons and the weather of a given area.


Continuing with the idea of the spleen and its important function in proper digestion, according to TEAM, certain foods aid in strengthening and keeping the smooth flow of this meridian system working at its best. The following are just some examples of foods that can help:

  • Miso Soup

  • Oats

  • Quinoa

  • Sweet potato

  • Pumpkin

  • Lentils

  • Mustard leaf

  • Orange peel

  • Chicken/Turkey

  • Salmon/Tuna


Exercise is fairly self-explanatory, including moving the body with activities such as cardio, weightlifting, dance, pilates, sports, and other workouts. Exercise helps increase circulation, boost mood, elevate energy, and improve sleep.


3. Physical Manipulation

Physical Manipulation includes certain forms of bodywork, assisted and passive stretching, and prescriptive exercises. These different forms of manipulation are part of bringing the body into balance, by affecting the musculature, ligaments, tendons, bones, range of motion and circulation. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Tui Na (which means to push and squeeze) is a great example of body work that aids in the continuous balance of the physical and internal balance of the body. This is not the typical type of bodywork that is for relaxation but a specific set of techniques that address what is in disharmony within the body according to TCM diagnostics. There are multiple techniques within this practice including kneading, tapping, pressing, pulling, pinching, rolling, shaking, etc., that follow the meridians and utilize acupressure points as well. Reduction of neck pain is one of the many benefits of Tui Na. When performed in such a case, Tui Na increases the blood circulation, relieves tightness and tension, and increases the smooth flow of “Qi” throughout the meridians of that area and the body as a whole.


4. QiGong

QiGong is a system of proper breathing and movement practices. This is more of a blanket term that can include but is not limited to tai chi, yoga, abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing, and meditation. These different types of breathing and movements are part of keeping the body and mind healthy, well oxygenated, and calm. Learn more about our weekly QiGong Classes here.


In Conclusion

The Four Pillars of Traditional East Asian Medicine are an acupuncturist/herbalists guide system of approach to create the proper treatments and plans to lead patients back to a healthy and balanced state. Within these four avenues there are certainly more specifics, but the aim here is to give the reader (who is either interested in acupuncture or has maybe even had acupuncture) a little more of a basic understanding of the different ways this medicine is practiced. These effective four pillars have been utilized since ancient times and will continue to be used now and in the future to give patients the best possible outcomes for their health concerns.


Have a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year!



Disclaimer: The above information is for educational purposes, not medical advice. Please seek a qualified Acupuncturist/Herbalist for proper diagnosis and treatment recommendations.



Written by Christopher Booth, M.S., L.Ac, Dipl. Ac. (NCCAOM)®

Licensed Acupuncturist


See Chris's video on Intro to Acupuncture and The Four Pillars of East Asian Medicine!






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